New Research on Individual Electoral Registration – Policy Implications

Most discussion was about the House of Lords reform following the Queen’s Speech last week.  However, the government also introduced the Electoral Registration And Administration Bill into Parliament.  Amongst other things, the bill intends to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) for elections in England, Wales and Scotland. 

At almost the same time, I am about to have an article that I have written on the likely effects of introducing individual registration published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.  You can download the article here

This research is built upon findings from an ongoing project funded by the McDougall Trust and Nuffield Foundation on election administration in the UK.  Earlier findings were presented to a House of Commons Select Committee in September last year. It is interesting to note that since then the government has already shifted its position on a number of policy positions from the proposals first introduced in June last year.  For example, the ‘opt-out’, whereby citizens could tick a box and not be included on the register appears to have been dropped. Nick Clegg hinted that this might happen in October last year.  The proposed Bill suggests that there will be now be a penalty for those who do not register. 

However, the article has a number of important policy implications and recommendations for the legislation and future practice of elections in the UK:

  1. Individual registration is likely to lead to a considerable decline in levels of registration, especially amongst the younger, elder and minority populations.  The government could consider therefore other new  schemes offset the anticipated decline.  These might include:
  • Online registration (this was always the plan, it seems, but it is important that it is taken forward….)
  • Allowing citizens to register to vote when accessing other government services such as obtaining a driving licence.   The majority of new registrants in America register to vote via this mechanism.  This could be an especially effective way of targeting younger citizens.
  • Providing penalties for those who do not register (which now appears to be on the cards…)
  1. Individual registration is a more resource intensive way of compiling the electoral register than household registration.  There may also be many unforeseen costs to local government at a time that they are faced with budget cuts.  Returning and registration officers may therefore make cuts in other services to allow for the introduction of individual registration.  Measures should be put in place to ensure sufficient long-term funding of elections.  This could involve ring-fencing new funding for election departments.
  2. The requirement for citizens to provide personal identifiers, such as a national insurance number, may confuse many voters.  The views of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully monitored through survey research after the implementation of IER.
Changes to the way the electoral register is compiled does not always capture the public or media’s interest. But it has important implications for how many people vote, electoral fraud, whether people perceive electoral institutions to be fair and sometimes who wins elections.  There have been some excellent recent blog posts from the like of Ros Baston and others in recent weeks.  Let’s hope there remains continued public interest in this important, but easily forgotten, issue.

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